The Current

Suspected poisoning of former spy is a warning to the West, says expert

March 08, 2018

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP )

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The suspected poisoning of a former Russian double agent fits a pattern of political murder, but Britain has few options in how to respond.  22:00

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The suspected poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain fits "the Putin pattern," but British prime minister Theresa May has limited options in how she can respond, according to one journalist.

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"Bear in mind that the UK is exiting from the European Union because of Brexit, so we don't have a huge number of allies on the continent," says Luke Harding, a British journalist with the Guardian.

"And we have an American president who himself seems to some degree to be under Russian influence, so there's going to be no back up there."

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, a sleepy cathedral city about 140 kilometres southwest of London.

Vladimir Putin is expected to retain his position after presidential elections this month, but Amy Knight says the Kremlin is worried about voter turnout. (Alexander Zemlianichenk/Associated Press)

Skripal was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, but eight years ago was released in a 'spy swap' between the two countries, and given refuge in the United Kingdom.

He and his daughter remain critically ill, in intensive care.

"One thing Vladimir Putin is very good at is exposing weakness," Harding tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"He knows the UK is weak. He knows that there's not a huge amount we can do."

"Boris Johnson [Britain's foreign minister] talked about not going to the World Cup — the soccer championship to be hosted by Moscow this summer — well that's not really going to strike terror into the Kremlin is it?

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U.K. counter-terrorism police are investigating the case of a former spy whose mysterious illness and hospitalization is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Sergei Skripal was hospitalized along with his daughter after an eyewitness noticed them collapsed on a park bench. Police suspect it's due to exposure to an unknown substance. What the substance is will be key in determining how the case will proceed. Skripal was convicted by Russia of spying for Britain, and there are some suggestions this could be the work of Moscow  3:51

'Sending a message'

Amy Knight, a writer and expert in Russian politics, says that if intelligence services are behind this, it's part of "an overall picture of the Kremlin increasingly standing up to the West, and saying: 'You can't push us around.'"

It's a stance that proves popular with the Russian public, she says.

"Russians are fed this steady diet of anti-Western propaganda and nationalism because the television, which is the main source of news, is state controlled."

Putin is expected to win presidential elections this month, but Knight says that the Kremlin is worried about a low turnout, and how it could undermine his mandate.

As well as a message to the West, she says, there's a message being sent to the Russian people.

"When there's a big sort of imbroglio with the West and suddenly attention is shifted to this dramatic event, and Britain is saying things about Russia, and the Russians are denying it, and then there's this underlying suspicion that actually they did do it — it may be difficult to understand, but this plays very, very well with Russian audiences."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal, Ines Colabrese and Jason Vermes.